Stuff To Ponder: Who’s Volunteering? Who’s Not Volunteering?

VolunteerMatch’s Engaging Volunteers blog recently drew attention to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report (BLS) that shows volunteer rates are continuing to drop.

As the post author Tessa Srebro notes, the BLS report gives us a lot of statistics about what demographic groups are more likely to volunteer than others, but-

What don’t we see? We don’t see the why.

There’s an endless supply of reasons that could explain why volunteer rates are falling. Last year, upon seeing the results, VolunteerMatch President Greg Baldwin argued that volunteer rates are falling because we as a nation don’t invest enough resources in the nonprofit sector. Without resources, nonprofits simply don’t have the capacity to effectively engage volunteers.

Someone in the comments of that post argued that the falling rates can be attributed to the fact that more people are overworked with less time on their hands. Others say people are simply lazier than they used to be.

I personally think it could be attributed to a shifting trend away from community involvement, due to the emergence of online communities, young people moving more often, and other factors.

There were a good number of comments to the Engaging Volunteers post and the number continues to grow. A large number of the commenters express frustration with the organizations they approached being un(der)prepared to train or employ them. Another common complaint was that the organizations wanted them to fulfill menial tasks rather than ones that challenged and engaged their interest.

I am not sure what the percentages have been in the past, but in this recent survey by BLS, the percentage of people who started volunteering after they were asked (41.2%) is almost exactly equal the number who were motivated to volunteer on their own (41.6%).

Given that this latter number represents those who are actively volunteering, it is possible that the percentage of people who are self-motivated to seek volunteer experiences is far larger than those who are motivated by the request of others. That 41.6% doesn’t include self-motivated people whose efforts were frustrated and are not volunteering.

As I have mentioned before, effectively utilizing free labor requires a significant investment of money, resources and attention.

There is a lot in the Engaging Volunteer’s post and the BLS report to consider and so much we don’t know about volunteers’ motivations. There seems to be an increasing desire to have a volunteer experiences be meaningful.

Thinking back to the Hewlett Foundation report I wrote on last month that suggested non-profit CEO’s were looking to continue working for a longer period of time with their organizations, albeit in a diminished role, perhaps it is not too far a reach to extrapolate that skilled professionals in general might desire to continue to apply their high level skills in a volunteer role after they enter retirement.

One last thing I wanted to point out for consideration is the breakdown of areas of interest for different demographic groups the BLS report shows. Knowing this might help your organization better design volunteer experiences for people. (Though you don’t want to stereotype.)

For example, while “Collecting, preparing, distributing, or serving food was the activity volunteers performed most often” according to the BLS report,

…main activities differed among men and women. Men who volunteered were most likely to engage in general labor (12.3 percent); coach, referee, or supervise sports teams (9.3 percent); or collect, prepare, distribute, or serve food (9.2 percent). Female volunteers were most likely to collect, prepare, distribute, or serve food (12.9 percent); tutor or teach (10.6 percent); or fundraise (9.9 percent)

There are similar trends based on education level, marital status and whether people have kids.

Dozen-ish Views On Etiquette

Audiences today, they just don’t know how to behave!

You have probably seen a lot of conversation on this subject crop up whenever something egregious occurs and makes the news or social media rounds.

UK based What’s On Stage decided to tackle the subject of etiquette from all angles over the last week.  There is a full index of all the articles on their site.  It can be worth taking a look through because while they have the usual perspectives from actors, annoyed audience members and the obligatory post about how things only got staid and passive during the Victorian era, there are some voices that aren’t commonly heard.

For example, an usher writes how they and their compatriots are the public face of the theater and bear the heaviest expectation to enforce the rules but don’t receive the support necessary to carry out their charge.

What the usher has to say probably isn’t news, but is a reminder to examine whether we are providing our front line staff/volunteers with sufficient support.

A theater manager writes:

I do think audience behaviour has changed recently. People feel they know their rights more and don’t necessarily have to think about other people. It’s all about them: ‘this is ridiculous, I shouldn’t have to queue’. There is a sense of entitlement. It always seems to be: ‘I’m traumatised now, and what are you going to give me?’

People are angry when they get disrupted by phones, but it also works the other way. The person on the phone says: ‘What’s your problem? It’s my phone and I am busy.’ There’s no sense of being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes.

He/she notes that so often a balance has to be struck, especially when it comes to assessing whether dealing with a disruption will cause a bigger disruption than is already occurring.

Then there are those who like their audience rowdy and involved and a woman who was dismayed that the audience at a performance at Mamma Mia! was so polite, she couldn’t manage to get them to sing along with the performers.

If nothing else, the series is a good reminder that the question of etiquette is one encompasses an entire range of people, not just those in close proximity in a single moment.

We Get All Types In Here

Yesterday I talked about some brainstorming that occurred during a post-museum show opening get together. That party was a lot more constructive for me than I expected because it provided fodder for this post as well.

I happened to fall into the orbit of the museum artistic director as she talked about the five types of people who visit museums. I didn’t know until later that these types are all laid out in the book, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience.

I haven’t read it yet, but the artistic director had done a fair bit of reading and writing on the subject and what you need to consider when laying out a museum exhibit.

The general traits of these types manifest in all arts audiences so I saw a lot of applicability across disciplines.

Experience Seeker– As she described it, the experience seeker is the type of person who goes into the Louvre, takes a picture of the Mona Lisa, walks out again and tells all their friends they have been to the Louvre.  While we in the arts hate this person for not taking the time to look at anything else, this person can be very enthusiastic when it comes to discussing their experience with their friends which can drive more visitors.

With this in mind, the artistic director said she uses lighting and really visible signage to highlight one or two select pieces in a gallery. If the experience seeker is only going to orient on one thing, she wants to influence what they look at and what information they absorb because they tend to do a pretty good job of retaining the details and relating them to friends.

Performing Arts entities can do the same thing by highlighting some memorable aspect of the experience. For some places it is going to be the performance, but for others it might be some other element related to the experience or the facility itself. People are likely to remember the skulls and swastikas in Albuquerque’s KiMo Theater, the washrooms at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, or watching Shakespeare under the stars in a replica of the Globe Theater at one of the Shakespeare festivals around the country, even if they forget or were bored by the details of the performance itself.

Facilitator – This is a person who is trying to help others experience the museum.  It could be friends, parents, teachers, etc. Signage is important for these people, but so the ability to procure educational and other support materials that make the experience enjoyable and the works accessible.  Physical layout can be important so that the group can easily transition through an exhibit.

For those arts organizations that don’t offer free admission, pricing can be a factor.

Explorer – This person is probably an arts org’s ideal attendee. They pay close attention and have a methodical approach to the experience. In a museum, they seek out the informational plaques and take some time to consider everything they encounter. Even if the give one piece a cursory glance, they don’t assume the next piece won’t be worthy of their attention.

In performing arts situations, these are the people who make sure they arrive on time and are moving toward the doors when the warning lights blink.  In any situation, they crave information so they will check out the links on your website, read your program/brochure and take it home with them and tend to be interested in educational programs like workshops, lectures, artist talks, etc.

Unlike the experience seeker, they are good candidates to become donors.

Professionals – this group includes dedicated amateurs/hobbyists as well as colleagues from peer organizations. They are looking for an experience and information that deepens their knowledge about the subject matter.  They want to know why an artist was significant to the time they were practicing and what distinctive elements were common to artists from that period.

This is, unfortunately, the audience many press releases and marketing materials are geared to when they include obscure arcana and accolades that only have relevance to this handful of insiders and initiates. If it doesn’t pass the Gal in Starbucks test, save those materials and hand them to these folks.

Even though they are most deeply interested and invested in the content you offer, they only have a low likelihood of becoming a donor. However, they do provide good word of mouth and validation among peer organizations and the general industry.

 Recharger- This is the person who uses interactions with your organization to recharge themselves. In a museum, they may come in and sit in front of the same painting every day for a week. They may be a volunteer who helps out because working in a creative environment helps them get through their 9-5 job.  Understanding how to interact with these people can be a little tricky. A person who is recharged by sitting in the presence of a work of art may want to control their experience whereas a volunteer may want you to guide their engagement a little.

Not charging them admission on their third visit that week or suggesting they may be interested in looking at project you are working on in “Employees Only” area may make you a friend for life.

According to my friend the museum director, rechargers often fly under the radar and remain quietly involved but can have a deep emotional investment with the organization that manifests in things like surprise bequests in people’s wills.

Everyone ends up embodying one of these types at different points in their lives. In a museum you may be an explorer but in a performance venue you engage as a professional. When you bring your nieces and nephews to a show, you operate as a facilitator and realize just how inhospitable some of your policies and practices are to families. At Mt. Rushmore you are an experience seeker and annoy everyone with your attempt to take a selfie that makes it appear you are punching Teddy Roosevelt in the nose.

No space or program can perfectly serve each of these types, but being aware of them allows you to anticipate the different ways you can address the needs of each.

Corralling The Wild Volunteer

The Wall Street Journal had a story entitled Docents Gone Wild sharing some stories about museum docents going off script, treating visitors rudely or diverting people away from works of art they didn’t approve of.

The take away for me wasn’t so much that you have to keep an eye on those crotchety senior citizens as much as the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation provides an opportunity to mobilize a large cohort of people on behalf of the arts. Only it will require some effort to effectively engage and train them.

In some respects this idea is a complement to the series on arts and aging/healing that Barry Hessenius hosted last month. That series dealt with the idea that there is an unmet need that the arts can respond to that is only going to grow as the Baby Boomer generation ages. However, currently most arts organizations lack the capacity to do so.

In terms of enlisting retirees as volunteer or in a type of semi-retired/second career role, arts organizations’ ability is a little more developed, but can still be improved. These retirees are people who are transitioning out of careers as highly skilled professionals and will likely enjoy a longer, healthier post-retirement lifestyle than their parents had.

They may want to contribute more than just ushering, envelop stuffing and phone answering during their retirement. If they can’t find an activity to hold their interest, they may choose another activity that they feel is better suited to the energy and ambition they feel they have.

Arts organizations may be wary about involving additional older folks on their boards of directors when they are desperately seeking younger voices, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some organizations managed to create special task groups that mobilized to advocate and lobby for them with government entities.

For all the foibles their docents may exhibit, I am pretty impressed by the rigor of the training program these museums have instituted for their docents. Not that I would increase the training we give our volunteers for its own sake, but it makes me wonder if we are investing enough attention to our training as well as care and feeding of our current volunteers even before addressing the issue of being prepared for new arrivals.

As I was I writing this post, I had a vague recollection of some futurist like John Nasbitt (Megatrends 2000), Faith Popcorn (Popcorn Report) or Alvin Toffler (Future Shock) coming out with a book in the last 10-15 years that said retirees would gather into fairly insular communities termed something like Yogurt Communities because they would value “active cultures” or cultural activity. I wonder if anyone can remember it because I can’t find it. I was curious to do a check back to see if predictions were coming to pass.